When I hear Christian conservatives speak of the need to preserve traditional marriage, I find myself asking: Which tradition?
The Hebrew tradition, in which a man could marry as many women as he could support?
The Pauline tradition (1 Cor. 7.36-38), in which fathers decided not just whom but even if their daughters were to marry?
The tradition of the early church, as found in Sts. John Chrysostom and Jerome, both of whom considered marriage to be an inferior lifestyle?
Or maybe that of St. Augustine, who thought it better to betroth himself to a 10-year old girl (20 years his junior, no less) rather than to his longtime mistress and mother of his son, and eventually rejected both women for a life of chastity?
I’m also confused about the reasons conservatives put forth for “traditional” marriage, since none of these reasons seems evident in the scriptures. They would have us believe that marriage is about more than just sex. But Paulís teaching (1 Cor. 7.9) that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” suggests it is good enough to get married solely for the purpose of satisfying one’s sexual desires in a socially-acceptable manner.
Conservatives also want us to believe that procreation is one of the most essential purposes for marriage. Yet it is difficult to reconcile this with Paul’s command (1 Tim. 5.9-15) that widows as old as 60 should re-marry! As I read the Christian scriptures closely, I see discussions of marriage as having very little to do with romantic love, procreation, or the stability of culture.
To my ears, it sounds as though the tradition the conservatives are so fond of comes not from Judeo-Christian scripture or from the early church, but rather from those Medieval notions of romantic love which stem both from the neo-Platonic ideal of beauty as a pathway to God and from the Stoic notion of natural law regarding procreation as the “purpose” of sexuality.
If the conservatives were more honest, they would have to admit both that Western notions of marriage have changed a lot over the centuries, and that their own conceptions of love are not necessarily biblical. But of course then they would have to admit that opening marriage to gay couples is not near the threat they believe it to be. And of course, we can’t have that, now could we? 😉
Steve Pearson is a Protestant mutt and failed theologian who has a Ph.D. in Literature and teaches at a midsize university in the South.